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  • Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.
 

Smut Makes NSF Fans Squirm

30 January 2009 4:48 pm
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The $6 billion National Science Foundation usually flies under the radar here in Washington, D.C., but a kerfuffle involving Internet pornography has angered hard-charging senator Charles Grassley (R-IA). And that's got fans of NSF worried.

A September 2008 report by the foundation's inspector general listed six cases involving foundation officials viewing pornography at work. In one case, an unnamed "senior official" was found to have viewed pornography at work over 2 years, costing the foundation $58,000 in wasted time. In a statement and subsequent appearances on CNN and Fox News, Grassley questioned whether NSF is fit to manage the $3 billion that the U.S. House of Representatives has proposed giving to it as part of the stimulus package.

Grassley is not a member of the Senate appropriations committee, so he won't have a direct effect on the fate of that proposed boost. But lobbyists who follow NSF closely worry that Grassley's concerns could sour some lawmakers concerning NSF, which generally enjoys a stellar reputation as a well-run ship. "It's just the absolute wrong time for questions about management at NSF to be coming out,” said one lobbyist. "This is the time to stay out of the newspapers."

Previously, Grassley has used his perch on the Senate Committee on Finance to investigate everything from megachurches to conflicts of interest among health scientists at U.S. universities. Researchers affiliated with the U.S. National Institutes of Health certainly know the rigor with which the Republican can challenge federal scientists.

For his part, NSF Director Arden Bement said through a spokesperson that he's not worried about the incidents affecting his organization’s chances to get big boosts as Congress debates what the final level for NSF should be in the stimulus package. "We expect [lawmakers] to focus on stimulus funding for the academic research community and the overall science and engineering enterprise in difficult economic times,” he said.

The spokesperson added: “[O]nce the IG's office notified us of the results of their investigation, the agency moved quickly and comprehensively to address the situation. That included new filters for the IT system, notices to every employee about appropriate IT use, an updated IT manual, and an NSF investigation of the employees named in the report, which led to either dismissals from the agency or suspensions.”

An official on Grassley's staff says that this week, NSF provided digital logs from its servers to the committee, and that staffers expect to have further information for the public on the investigation next week.